Few places promise darker skies — where northern lights shine brightest and dance longest — than cruise ships sailing the Arctic Circle in winter.
Northern lights cruises sail mostly the northern coast of Norway, and some venture to Iceland and Greenland. Passengers see snow-smothered fishing villages with buildings painted in primary colors, bustling commercial ports and austere, monochromatic tundrascapes. Onshore, cruisers can dog sled, cross-country ski, snowmobile, overnight in a snow-ice hotel, join cultural tours that visit indigenous people’ settlements, possibly view wildlife and enjoy special dining experiences reflective of the region’s winter lifestyle.
Of course, the main events are the northern lights themselves. Some Native Americans saw the lights as war omens. A myth from the Arctic Circle’s indigenous people tells that the northern lights are the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus skull. Vikings believed the flashing lights were armor and shields of Valkyries, warrior maidens of Norse myth.
Scientific speculation of why northern lights appear started in the 17th century. Scientists Pierre Gassendi and Galileo Galilei both are credited with naming the glowing night lights “aurora borealis” meaning “dawn of the north.” Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind. Modern research of the northern lights phenomenon began around the late 19th century.
Today, NASA studies the northern lights and what causes them. An aurora is caused by energized particles (protons and electrons) released by gaseous plasma explosions on the sun’s surface, creating solar winds traveling through space. Aurorae are most frequently seen in the North and South Pole regions because Earth’s magnetic field lines cross the atmosphere there year-round. In the Southern Hemisphere, the lights are called “aurora australis.”
Best Time for Northern Lights Cruises
When it comes to actually seeing northern lights, it comes down to luck, but the odds are greatest if you’re in the right place at the right time around the Arctic Circle (66 degrees 33’45” North). However, while aurora events are happenstance and vary in intensity, they are most visible roughly between October and March on cloudless, dark winter nights.
Viewing northern lights hinges on three interrelated factors: your location on the planet during the winter season, the local time of day and the solar cycle (an 11-year period when explosions on the sun’s surface are more frequent than in other years). Generally, skies are clearest near the spring and fall equinoxes in later September and March.
Northern Lights Cruise Lines
Midsize and small ship cruise companies offer the most Arctic Circle sails during prime northern lights viewing months. Lines to choose from include Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Marco Polo Cruises, Saga Cruises and Fred. Olsen.
Special mention needs to go to Hurtigruten, which offers the largest selection of Arctic winter cruise dates. The Norwegian fleet of 11 midsized ships calls on 34 ports, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north on the Russian border. Hurtigruten operates as both a passenger cruise line and a lifeline for Norwegian coastal residents. These working ships transport locals’ cars, fjord towns’ freight and up to 1,000 people total on any given day (all onboard announcements in Norwegian, English and German). Hurtigruten guarantees that the northern lights will make an appearance on all winter 12-day Classic Roundtrip Coastal Voyages from October 2015 through February 2016, or you get a free cruise.
Among the mainstream cruise lines, P&O Cruises departs from Southampton, calling on Amsterdam before heading north up Norway’s coast. German line Aida visits Iceland and Norway. (German is the only onboard language.) Celebrity Cruises offers a land package in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a northern lights excursion.
Greenland’s Arctic Umiaq Line is a year-round ferry-freight-cruise ship calling on ten ports on Greenland’s west coast. It carries 248 passengers, has 26 basic overnight cabins (each sleeps four) and food service (guided tours offered in some ports during summer). The ship sails roundtrip from Nuuk to Ilulissat until mid-December, and then only north to Sisimiut until spring, due to unpredictable sea ice conditions. (Onboard languages are Greenlandic, English and Danish.) Itineraries are three and four nights.
Iceland, Greenland and polar regions around the Northwest Passage promote some of their active, adventurous cruises in primarily September and March as northern lights viewing opportunities. If seeing aurorae is your primary objective on these trips, let the fall and spring equinoxes be your guiding lights when choosing dates. Lines cruising in these regions are Hurtigruten, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Quark Expeditions, Polar Cruises, Peregrine Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Oceanwide Expeditions, Iceland Pro Cruises and Adventure Canada. Tour operators offering land trips with winter season cruise components are Five Stars Scandinavia, Nordic Visitor, Atlantik, Icelandic Pro Travel and Tasermiut South Greenland Expeditions.
Northern Lights Cruise Itineraries
Northern lights cruises depart mostly from ports in the U.K. and Norway and generally sail 10- to 15-night itineraries during the winter season. Many cruises hug the northern Norwegian coast above the Arctic Circle, and some venture to the Svalbard Archipelago, where the Gulf Stream flows prevent the seas from freezing in winter. Some cruise lines and tour operators host Iceland, Greenland and Northwest Passage cruises in mostly September and March.
Norway: Norway dominates the northern lights cruise circuit with voyages ranging from five nights to 14 nights. When selecting a northern lights cruise, keep in mind that sailing along Norway’s three northernmost counties — Nordland, Troms and Finnmark -offer the greatest opportunities for viewing northern lights, both onboard the ship and during nighttime excursions ashore. Ports of call often include Bodo, Tromso, Alta, Honningsvag and Kirkenes. Some cruises stop in Norway’s Vesteralen, Lofoten and Svalbard islands.
Iceland, Greenland & Northwest Passage: Cruises to these destinations average 14 nights but can be just three nights when part of Arctic land tours or even almost a month on icebreaking expedition ships. Cruises stop in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, as well as historic Sisimiut and Ilulissat. Northwest Passage cruises travel north around the Canadian High Arctic with stops that include bird sanctuary Prince Leopold Island, Beechey Island, Canada’s most northerly community Grise Fiord and Greenland’s Ilulissat Icefjord. A few expedition ships push north on Greenland’s east coast to Inuit settlement Ittoqqortoormiit on the world’s largest fjord system, Scoresbysund. It’s located near remote Greenland National Park, the world’s largest national park, where polar bears, walruses, reindeer, musk oxen and birdlife thrive.
Alaska: Although Alaska enjoys a high volume of aurora activity, its cruises are not often mentioned as northern lights cruises. During the Alaska cruise season, it’s rarely dark enough for the lights to be visible.
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